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EYE OF THE RED TSAR
By Sam Eastland
Bantam Books, May 2010 ($25.00)
Reviewed by Larry Jung
The man is known by three names: The Emerald Eye, Prisoner 4745-P, and as Pekkala. As the Emerald Eye, Pekkala was the legendary investigator and protector of the Tsar. Thrown into a remote prison camp where prisoners were not expected to survive for any length of time, Pekkala, now known only as Prisoner 4745-P, became a legend as a survivor. Now the Red Tsar, Stalin, has temporarily commuted Prisoner 4745-P's sentence to save the very existence of the fledging communist Russian government. Pekkala has three qualities needed to succeed. Pekkala can recall the smallest details. He has been trained by the best to be an investigator. His integrity is absolute.
The mission is to locate the bodies of the Romanov's, the last royal family of Russia, and in doing so, put to rest the constant threat that one of them will come back to Russia and overthrow the fledging communist state.
For Pekkala the mission becomes more dangerous because his brother Anton is in charge. The tension between the two brothers and the lack of trust threatens to undermine the mission from the start. Where Pekkala's character is defined by duty and honor, Anton is an opportunist. Anton's duty is only to Anton. Anton's sense of honor is rooted in personal survival. Anton, as the eldest, disgraced the family name by being caught stealing when he was a cadet. Pekkala was sent to be a cadet to erase the black mark on the family name. Pekkala is further outraged when he learns Anton had changed his name like Lenin and Stalin to better serve the revolution.
The third member is Lieutenant Kirov. Pekkala sees Kirov also as a liability. Not because he is like Anton, but because Kirov is young and inexperienced. Not too long ago Kirov was a student in a cooking academy before the state shut the school down and reassigned the students. Kirov was made a Commissar.
The discovery of the bodies of the Romanov's in a mine shaft is only the start of what these three will have to endure.
For me the story had a slow start for an action/thriller. The narrative mood and the buildup of the situation were interrupted by insertions of extensive flashbacks. The device of flashbacks signaled in italics seems to give the narrative a jerky feel, for a thriller.
Though there is nothing new in the characters of Pekkala, Anton, and Kirov, the author captures the landscape and the people of Stalin's Russia. The main story is interesting. It is basically the story of three heroes (though one is tarnished) on a quest. It is the tension among the three that keeps the story alive. Each is searching for their own grail within the larger quest.
Except for the flashbacks (by the time I was mid-way through the book, I got used to them), I can recommend EYE OF THE RED TSAR for those whose taste run to historical thrillers and, in particular, the subgenre of Russian mysteries written by non-Russians (e.g., Martin Cruz Smith's GORKY PARK.)
Note: This is the first book in a new series. Sam Eastland is working on the second Pekkala book.
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